Measuring financial instability: could you pay $2,000 in the next 30 days?

HelloWallet Academic Advisory Board member Annamaria Lusardi’s recently published research on financial instability was written up in the Wall Street Journal’s Real Time Economics blog last week.

When Lusardi and her colleagues surveyed a sample from across the socioeconomic spectrum in the US and other countries, nearly 30 percent of Americans said they wouldn’t be able to handle a $2,000 unexpected expense in the next month—the approximate cost of a car transmission replacement, a copayment on a large medical expense, legal fees or a home repair, for example. Another 22.2 percent reported they would be “probably unable” to handle the expense, and only 25.1 percent felt confident they “certainly” could handle it.

When asked how they would deal with such an expense, 25.7 percent of respondents answered with “what might be seen as extreme measures,” such as selling their home or taking out a payday loan, according to Lusardi and her colleagues.  Combined with the 27.9 percent who said they could not cope with a financial emergency, the researchers conclude that perhaps 46.5 percent of Americans are living “very close to the financial edge.”

This fragility isn’t limited to low-income groups, but applies to many ‘middle class’ Americans as well.

Since the survey asked how respondents felt about their financial position, the results could reflect pessimism instead of or in addition to actual financial tension.  Either way, it seems Americans need help stashing away money for rainy days and emergencies.

What if your transmission fell out? Could you come up with $2,000 in the next 30 days?